How to open a restaurant in Washington D.C.

D.C. has been in the spotlight for a number of reasons in the past year, the most nonpartisan of them all being the growing restaurant scene. Given that it’s the capital of our nation, the city has long been a center for diverse, international, and cultured clientele—but only recently have restaurateurs begun to take notice of this captive audience, with big-name chefs like David Chang and Daniel Boulud opening concepts in the heart of the city, and other restaurants, like Bombay Club and Doi Moi, setting new standards for the ambitiousness and creativity of the dining scene. Just this past year, in fact, the Michelin Guide launched its first ever D.C. edition, a surefire indication that the city is a bonafide culinary destination.

“D.C. is the capital of the world, so people are coming here no matter what,” says Ashok Bajaj, a D.C. restaurateur whose portfolio includes Bombay Club and Rasika (a favorite of former President Obama’s), among others. “It’s not New York or San Francisco in terms of the number of restaurants, but it gets the same amount of traffic because you’ve got all the culture, museums, politics, and the diplomatic visits. It’s an exciting place to be as a chef.”

As a center of politics and deal making, D.C. is also always in need of restaurant locales for doing business, and there’s no shortage of customers who are willing to pony up for a great meal. Another benefit of having a restaurant in the center point of government: you are getting a brand-new audience every two years, thanks to elections, so there are plenty of opportunities to make an impression on a fresh, eager dining clientele.

Also, even though D.C. is the place where laws are passed, regulations that affect restaurateurs are significantly more lax than in other cities. Take alcohol laws, for example—only in D.C. can restaurants buy directly from vineyards or distilleries and not have to go through a wholesaler, who may not have their favorite varieties. “We call it the wild west of wine,” Morgan Fausett, director of operations for the Fat Baby restaurant group in DC (encompassing Proof, Estadio, Doi Moi, and 2 Birds 1 Stone), says. “It really opens up a whole array of opportunities for businesses.”

The challenges

The biggest downside of the dynamic nature of the city? Maintaining regulars. Fausett says that you might have a congresswoman frequenting your spot for a year or two, and then she will rotate out of D.C., and you’ve instantly lost a regular. Even for a restaurant like Proof, which has been around for about a decade, she says the struggle is there.

It’s also a particularly tough city for first time restaurateurs. According to Celia Laurent, co-owner of Kinship and Metier, D.C. landlords tend to be significantly more biased toward longstanding chains, especially in the more tourist-y areas around the White House, and they are less willing to take a risk on a non-corporate concept. This can make it tough for new, ambitious spots to lay down roots in the city.

Of course, the biggest complaint among restaurateurs: the sheer number of road blockages and shutdowns due to noisy motorcades and political events. While these are usually brief and not super disruptive to the area, it is a very D.C.-specific annoyance.

Tips for success

Go for the suburbs. Central D.C. can be tempting, as that’s where all the wealthy politicians are wont to congregate for lunches and dinners, but Laurent says the suburbs are the way to go. “There are a lot of new neighborhoods and residential populations that are in desperate need of new restaurants,” she says. Plus, she adds, people in the city are more willing to travel for a restaurant than they used to be, so you’re not going to be exclusively reliant on local residents.

Stay up to date with the news. The culture and pulse of the city are very dependent on the political environment in D.C. Laurent says that it behooves every restaurateur to understand what’s happening on the Hill, whether it directly relates to the restaurant industry or not, as the day-to-day in our government tends to set very particular tones within the community. “This is a place where the citizenry is very engaged,” she says.

Mark your calendar for congressional recesses. During these periods of time (particularly during the summer recess), expect slower than usual days, even if your restaurant is not located super close to Capitol Hill, Laurent says. The city tends to empty out.

If you’re going high-end, make sure it’s quiet. If you’re going casual, make sure it’s healthy. The D.C. power lunch is still very much a part of political and business culture, but people aren’t into the same sorts of fine dining concepts that are popular in New York, Fausett says. “People want to impress and conduct business at the dinner table, but they tend to shy away from those newer concepts that have loud dining rooms and lots of small plates.” On the flip side, the most popular everyday restaurants in the city are those that tend to lean toward the healthier side, of dining offering casual, sit-down service as well as to-go options.

Don’t judge a diner by his or her attire. A unique trait of D.C., Fausett says, is that many people travel incognito, so it may be a congressman or noted lobbyist coming into your restaurant, but he or she may not be dripping in David Yurman.” She says that interestingly enough, it’s often the most casually clad of diners who end up dropping big bucks on bottles of wine.

If you’re anywhere near Pennsylvania Avenue, expect to be crushed on any political holiday. Take it from Bajaj, who has restaurants that line the perimeters of the National Mall and the White House lawn. If it’s the Fourth of July, count on having to hire extra staff.

Photo credit: Robert Miller

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